John Atherton of Emporia received a replica of the Congressional Gold Medal at the Kansas Wing Conference on May 23 in Salina.
The actual Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to the Civil Air Patrol, of which Atherton is a member. Atherton is one of three Kansans who have received the award, the others being George Boyd and Toby Elster of Wichita.
Atherton, who is 89 years old and received the honor due to his service to CAP during World War II, said he first heard about the award from someone who called him about a year ago.
“It was quite a surprise,” he said. “Major Derek Montgomery called me and told me they were presenting the award to me and two other fellows in Washington. I didn’t make the trip, so they presented mine at the state ceremony in Salina.”
Montgomery, 77th composite squadron deputy commander for the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary, said he felt honoring CAP members was another way to thank them for their service.
“Those honored here are a completely different group,” he said. “They are civilians who volunteered to help and turned out to be coastal control. We didn’t realize at the time how important their service would be, but it was big. They are credited with two sinks of submarines. Many took their own private planes and released bombs from them. They weren’t drafted; they were volunteers and that is pretty awesome. They didn’t ask for anything in return.”
Atherton joined the CAP squadron in Emporia at the age of 16.
“They organized the Civil Air Patrol nationally in 1941,” he said. “We established a squadron in Emporia in the early part of 1942. I turned 16 in April, and and some of us in high school were eager to do something. We joined CAP and met weekly in the National Guard Armory which was located in the building at Sixth and Merchant Street then. We had drills there.”
Atherton participated in a mock attack that pitted his squadron against the local National Guard unit.
Less than six months later, he was off to a real assignment, refueling planes, driving a fire truck and later serving as an observer at Coastal Patrol Base 10 in Beaumont-Port Arthur, Texas.
Atherton and three senior squadron members drove to Texas in a 1941, in a five-passenger Chevy coupe, seated with their luggage and three shotguns. The pay was $5 a day. He and his fellow Kansans rented a barn hayloft to stay in and bought meals for 32 cents each at the airport.
“We were part of a group in Beaumont, Texas, patrolling the gulf,” he said. “We escorted convoys through the gulf, around Florida. It was the fear of submarines that led to our mission.”
Atherton, who had earlier completed both radio-telegraphy and aircraft spotting exams, eventually got to fly on missions, going aloft in a plane fitted with a 50-pound bomb.
“They put me on the line to service air planes,” he said. “I had taken a radio course and that enabled me to be a radio operator on a plane.”
He also saw some action on the ground when the coastal patrol base was hit by a hurricane.
After serving CAP for a little over a year, he returned to Emporia to complete his high school education and then enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1944.
After his service in World War II, Atherton was called back into service for the Korean War once he had his bachelor’s degree and one year of law school. His degree landed him back in the Army as a reserve officer, training troops in the 6th Armored Division, Combat Command A, at both Fort Leonard Wood and Fort Bragg.
Atherton attended West Point briefly, but the discovery of hearing loss due to his artillery service led him to become a lawyer.
“I was disappointed when I received the medical discharge due to my hearing loss,” he said. “Sometimes, that’s the way it goes. But my dad had been a lawyer and law was always interesting to me, so I knew what I wanted to do next.”
His career in law began if 1953 when he graduated from the University of Kansas and began practicing in Hutchinson, where he stayed for two years. He spent 45 years as an attorney in Emporia until he retired in 2000, and his practice is still run today by his son Stephen.
Atherton also served on the Emporia City Commission, acting as mayor for one year. He was also active in the Rotary Club and is an original member of the Lyon County Historical Society.
Atherton and his wife Anne have four children: David of Salina, Rebecca of San Jose, California, Stephen of Emporia and Carolyn of New Orleans.
The CGM was signed into law on May 30, 2014 by President Obama after it was passed by the House and Senate on May 19 and 20, 2014.
To be eligible for the CAP congressional gold medal, CAP members must have served in the Civil Air Patrol during the period of December 7, 1941 to September 2, 1945.
CAP veterans or their families must provide some evidence that shows the individual nominated served during this period. This information must be entered on the CAP data base and validated by someone in the wing or on the national staff.
For more information on the CAP CGM, visit: www.capgoldmedal.com.